MADISON, Wis. – Sabina Burton is just about out of justice, and she is running out of time.
The embattled University of Wisconsin-Platteville associate criminal justice professor, who says she was discriminated and retaliated against for blowing the whistle on misconduct, has lost her federal appeal and could soon lose the job she dearly loves.
Burton blames her former legal counsel, a public-sector union attorney who didn’t like Burton seeking help from Gov. Scott Walker — Public Enemy No. 1 to Wisconsin big labor.
In its decision earlier this month affirming a lower court decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that Burton’s frustrations “may be significant, but they do not amount to actionable retaliation” under Title VII or Title IX.
The former, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 further prohibits discrimination, on the basis of sex, under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
As first reported in Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Troubled Campus, Burton alleges she has been the victim of harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the hands of UW-P administrators since October 2012, when a female student told Burton she had been sexually harassed by a male professor in the Criminal Justice Department.
Burton claims administrators took away a grant, committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career after she spoke out about the handling of the sexual harassment complaint. She claims she was physically threatened by the former acting chairman of the department, that she was defamed by an instructor, and saw her health rapidly deteriorate.
Burton, who has filed previous EEOC complaints, says she is viewed as a “troublemaker” by administration and staff.
She also sued the university and some of its administrators in 2015 in federal court, eventually losing the case.
The appeals court agreed that the U.S. District Court in Madison was correct in awarding the university summary judgment because there was not enough evidence to support Burton’s allegations.
“First, we emphasize that “[n]ot everything that makes an employee unhappy is an actionable adverse action,” the appeals court wrote in its decision. “In other words, it does not include ‘those petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience.’”
Burton contends that the university’s hostile actions, directly and indirectly taken against her, were no mere “petty slights or minor annoyances.”
She claims a supervisor repeatedly pressured her to drop the discrimination charges. The associate professor was told that “she might have been considered for the positions of dean or department chair, but that she could not expect to advance if she continued to engage in litigious behavior.”
The appeals court described these as “unfulfilled threats.”
UW-P was represented by the state Attorney General’s Office. The state did not argue the validity of Burton’s expanded retaliation claims, but that the court must not consider them in the first place because the professor’s attorney did not raise the matters during the original lawsuit.
“Burton’s problem is that she did not make these broad arguments to the district court,” the 7th Circuit ruling states.
Burton asserts her legal counsel at the time, union attorney Timothy Hawks, not only failed to adequately represent her, he “sabotaged” her case.
“It was my attorney who failed to provide more than these two arguments,” Burton told Wisconsin Watchdog. “I strongly believe if Hawks had entered all my evidence of protected activities and adverse action and rebutted the defendants’ findings of fact as I outlined and documented to him, I would have prevailed.”
Hawks did not return requests for comment. Neither did a UW-Platteville official.
Burton claims Hawks, who represents some of the biggest public unions in the state, was “especially upset when” UW System legal counsel Jennifer Lattis informed Hawks that his client had sought help with her case from Walker. Public sector unions despise the Republican governor for his 2011 collective bargaining reform law, Act 10.
“That is when he (Hawks) opened up about his political affiliation – very strong Democrat and he very much dislikes Walker,” Burton said.
The professor said Walker had invited her to contact his office after she spoke to him following a Lincoln Day Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, in May 2015.
Last year, in a keynote speech titled, “On Wisconsin; Life Without Collective Bargaining,” Hawks took aim at Walker and Act 10, five years after its passage.
“When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker declared open war against public sector unions, Tim was on the front lines,” the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police said of Hawks in announcing the speech.
With the appeals court ruling in favor of UW-Platteville, Burton’s professional status with the university remains in limbo.
In January, UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields ordered Burton to clean out her office and prohibited her from being on campus while the investigation into complaints against the professor continued.
Shields advised Burton in January that he was “initiating the dismissal process” based on a complaint filed by two administrators. Shields informed Burton that if the allegations were true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”
Among other offenses, the administrators’ complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.”
Burton denies the allegations, and has provided evidence refuting accusations regarding internal email communications, for instance.
Petra Roter, senior special assistant to the vice president for academic and student affairs for the University of Wisconsin System, led the latest investigation into Burton.
Roter recently completed a report on her findings. The investigation included interviews with Burton and her accusers, who claim it was Burton who has caused a hostile environment in the department.
Burton disputes many of the report’s findings on the webpage she has used to document her allegations — the webpage that has landed her in hot water with administration.
Overall, Roter’s report suggests a Criminal Justice Department that has been in disarray for some time.
“Everyone interviewed agreed that Dr. Burton is an excellent teacher,” the report states.
Earlier this month, Burton filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging she has been the “target of vicious retaliation by both her fellow professors and the administration of the school.”
Burton says she is focusing on her new claims against the university.
“I am smarter now when it comes to legal battles. I also know how the university administration and UW legal counsel operate,” she said. “I used to believe that they were fair and interested in the truth. Now I know that they just care about covering up and silencing their whistleblowers.”
M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]
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